ALMOST FROM their initial moment of meeting, Mel Bakersfeld had formed an instinctive dislike of the lawyer, Elliott Freemantle, who was leading the delegation of Meadowood residents. Now, ten minutes or so after the delegation filed into Mel's office, the dislike was sharpening to downright loathing.
It seemed as if the lawyer was deliberately being as obnoxious as possible. Even before the discussion opened, there had been Freemantle's unpleasant remark about not wanting "a lot of doubletalk," which Mel parried mildly, though resenting it. Since then, every rejoinder of Mel's had been greeted with equal rudeness and skepticism. Mel's instinct cautioned him that Freemantle was deliberately baiting him, hoping that Mel would lose his temper and make intemperate statements, with the press recording them. If it was the lawyer's strategy, Mel had no intention of abetting it. With some difficulty, he continued to keep his own manner reasonable and polite.
Freemantle had protested what he termed, "the callous indifference of this airport's management to the health and well-being of my clients, the good citizen families of Meadowood."
Mel replied quietly that neither the airport nor the airlines using it had been callous or indifferent. "On the contrary, we have recognized that a genuine problem about noise exists, and have done our best to deal with it."
"Then your best, sir, is a miserable, weak effort! And you've done what?" Lawyer Freemantle declared, "So far as my clients and I can see---and hear---you've done no more than make empty promises which amount to nothing. It's perfectly evident---and the reason we intend to proceed to law---is that no one around here really gives a damn."
The accusation was untrue, Mel countered. There had been a planned program of avoiding takeoffs on runway two five---which pointed directly at Meadowood---whenever an alternate runway could be used. Thus, two five was used mostly for landings only, creating little noise for Meadowood, even though entailing a loss in operating efficiency for the airport. In addition, pilots of all airlines had instructions to use noise abatement procedures after any takeoff in the general direction of Meadowood, on whatever runway, including turns away from Meadowood immediately after leaving the ground. Air traffic control had cooperated in all objectives.
Mel added, "What you should realize, Mr. Freemantle, is that this is by no means the first meeting we have had with local residents. We've discussed our mutual problems many times."
Elliott Freemantle snapped, "Perhaps at the other times there was not enough plain speaking."
"Whether that's true or not, you seem to be making up for it now."
"We intend to make up for a good deal---of lost time, wasted effort and bad faith, the latter not on my clients' part"
Mel decided not to respond. There was nothing to be gained, for either side, by this kind of harangue---except, perhaps, publicity for Elliott Freemantle. Mel observed that the reporters' pencils were racing; one thing which the lawyer clearly understood was what made lively copy for the press.
As soon as he decently could, Mel resolved, he would cut this session short. He was acutely conscious of Cindy, still seated where she had been when the delegation came in, though now appearing bored, which was characteristic of Cindy whenever anything came up involving airport affairs. This time, however, Mel sympathized with her. In view of the seriousness of what they had been discussing, he was finding this whole Meadowood business an intrusion himself.
In Mel's mind, too, was his recurring concern for Keith. He wondered how things were with his brother, over in air traffic control. Should he have insisted that Keith quit work for tonight, and pursued their discussion which---until the tower watch chief's intervention cut it off---had seemed to be getting somewhere? Even now, perhaps, it was not too late... But then there was Cindy, who certainly had a right to be considered ahead of Keith; and now this waspish lawyer, Freemantle, still ranting on...
"Since you chose to mention the so-called noise abatement procedures," Elliott Freemantle inquired sarcastically, "may I ask what happened to them tonight?"
Mel sighed. "We've had a storm for three days." His glance took in the others in the delegation. "I'm sure you're all aware of it. It's created emergency situations." He explained the blockage of runway three zero, the temporary need for takeoffs on runway two five, with the inevitable effect on Meadowood.
"That's all very well," one of the other men said. He was a heavy-jowled, balding man whom Mel had met at other discussions about airport noise. "We know about the storm, Mr. Bakersfeld. But if you've living directly underneath, knowing why airplanes are coming over doesn't make anyone feel better, storm or not. By the way, my name is Floyd Zanetta. I was chairman of the meeting..."
Elliott Freernantle cut in smoothly. "If you'll excuse me, there's another point before we go on." Obviously the lawyer had no intention of relinquishing control of the delegation, even briefly. He addressed Mel, with a sideways glance at the press. "It isn't solely noise that's filling homes and ears of Meadowood, though that's bad enough---shattering nerves, destroying health, depriving children of their needed sleep. But there is a physical invasion..."
This time Mel interrupted. "Are you seriously suggesting that as an alternative to what's happened tonight, the airport should close down?"
"Not only am I suggesting that you do it; we may compel you. A moment ago I spoke of a physical invasion. It is that which I will prove, before the courts, on behalf of my clients. And we will win!"
The other members of the delegation, including Floyd Zanetta, gave approving nods.
While waiting for his last words to sink home, Elliott Freemantle deliberated. He supposed he had gone almost far enough. It was disappointing that the airport general manager hadn't blown a fuse, as Freernantle had been carefully goading him to do. The technique was one which he had used before, frequently with success, and it was a good technique because people who lost their tempers invariably came off worse in press reports, which wag what Freemantle was mainly concerned about. But Bakersfeld, though clearly annoyed, had been too smart to fall for that ploy. Well, never mind, Elliott Freemantle thought; he had been successful just the same. He, too, had seen the reporters industriously getting his words down---words which (with the sneer and hectoring tone removed) would read well in print; even better, he believed, than his earlier speech at the Meadowood meeting.
Of course, Freemantle realized, this whole proceeding was just an exercise in semantics. Nothing would come of it. Even if the airport manager, Bakersfeld, could be persuaded to their point of view---a highly unlikely happening---there was little or nothing he could do about it. The airport was a fact of life and nothing would alter the reality of it being where and how it was. No, the value of being here at all tonight was partly in gaining public attention, but principally (from Lawyer Freemantle's viewpoint) to convince the Meadowood populace that they had a stalwart champion, so that those legal retainer forms (as well as checks) would keep on flowing into the offices of Freemantle and Sye.
It was a pity, Freemantle thought, that the remainder of the crowd from Meadowood, who were waiting downstairs, could not have heard him up here, dishing out the rough stuff---on their behalf---to Bakersfeld. But they would read about it in tomorrow's papers; also, Elliott Freemantle was not at all convinced that what was happening here and now would be the last Meadowood item on tonight's airport agenda. He had already promised the TV crews, who were waiting down below because they couldn't make it in here with their equipment, a statement when this present session was over. He had hopes that by now---because he had suggested it---the TV cameras would be set up in the main terminal concourse, and even though that Negro police lieutenant had forbidden any demonstration there, Freemantle had an idea that the TV session, astutely managed, might well develop into one.
Elliott Freemantle's statement of a moment ago had concerned legal action---the action which, he had assured Meadowood residents earlier this evening, would be his principal activity on their behalf. "My business is law," he had told them. "Law and nothing else." It was not true, of course; but then, Elliott Freemantle's policies were apt to back and fill as expediency demanded.
"What legal action you take," Mel Bakersfeld pointed out, "is naturally your own affair. All the same, I would remind you that the courts have upheld the rights of airports to operate, despite adjoining communities, as a matter of public convenience and necessity."
Freemantle's eyebrows shot up. "I didn't realize that you are a lawyer too."
"I'm not a lawyer. I'm also quite sure you're aware of it."
"Well, for a moment I was beginning to wonder." Elliott Freemantle smirked. "Because I am, you see, and with some experience in these matters. Furthermore, I assure you that there are legal precedents in my clients' favor." As he had at the meeting earlier, he rattled off the impressive-sounding list of cases---U.S. v. Causby, Griggs v. County of Allegheny, Thornburg v. Port of Portland, Martin v. Port of Seattle.
Mel was amused, though he didn't show it. The cases were familiar to him. He also knew of others, which had produced drastically different judgments, and which Elliott Freemantle was either unaware of or had cagily avoided mentioning. Mel suspected the latter, but had no intention of getting into a legal debate. The place for that, if and when it happened, was in court.
However, Mel saw no reason why the lawyer---whom he now disliked even more intensely---should have everything his own way. Speaking to the delegation generally, Mel explained his reason for avoiding legal issues, but added, "Since we are all here, there are some things I would like to say to you on the subject of airports and noise generally."
Cindy, he observed, was yawning.
Freemantle responded instantly. "I doubt if that will be necessary. The next step so far as we are concerned..."
"Oh!" For the first time Mel dispensed with mildness, and bore down heavily. "Am I to understand that after I've listened patiently to you, you and your group are not prepared to extend the same courtesy?"
The delegate, Zanetta, who had spoken before, glanced at the others. "I do think we ought..."
Mel said sharply, "Let Mr. Freemantle answer."
"There's really no need"---the lawyer smiled suavely---"for anyone to raise their voice, or be discourteous."
"In that case, why have you been doing both those things ever since you came in?"
"I'm not aware..."
"Well, I am aware."
"Aren't you losing your temper, Mr. Bakersfeld?"
"No," Mel smiled. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not." He was conscious of having seized an advantage, catching the lawyer by surprise. Now he went on, "You've had a good deal to say, Mr. Freemantle, and not much of it politely. But there are a few things I'd like to get on the record, too. Also, I'm sure the press will be interested in both sides even if no one else is."
"Oh, we're interested all right. It's just that we've heard all the wishy-washy excuses already." As usual, Elliott Freemantle was recovering fast. But he admitted to himself that he had been lulled by Bakersfeld's earlier mild manner, so that the sharp counterattack caught him unawares. He realized that the airport general manager was more astute than he appeared.
"I didn't say anything about excuses," Mel pointed out. "I suggested a review of airport noise situations generally."
Freemantle shrugged. The last thing he wanted was to open up some new approach which might be newsworthy and, therefore, divert attention from himself. At the moment, though, he didn't see how he could prevent it.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Mel began, "when you first came here tonight something was said about plain, blunt speaking on both sides. Mr. Freemantle has had his turn at that; now I will be equally candid."
Mel sensed he had the full attention of the two women and four men in the delegation; also of the press. Even Cindy was watching him covertly. He continued to speak quietly.
"All of you know, or should, the measures which we have taken at Lincoln International Airport to make life easier, more bearable, from the point of view of aircraft noise, for those who live in the airport vicinity. Some of these measures have been mentioned already, and there are others, such as using remote airport areas for the testing of engines, and even then during proscribed hours only."
Elliott Freemantle, already fidgeting, cut in. "But you've admitted that these so-called systems fail to work."
Mel snapped back, "I admitted nothing of the kind. Most of the time they do work---as well as any compromise can. Tonight I've admitted that they are not working because of exceptional circumstances, and frankly if I were a pilot, taking off in weather like this, I'd be reluctant to reduce power right after takeoff, and make a climbing turn too. Furthermore, this kind of condition is bound to recur from time to time."
"Most of the time!"
"No, sir! And please allow me to finish!" Without pausing, Mel went on, "The fact is: airports---here and elsewhere---have come close to doing as much as they can in the way of noise reduction. You may not like hearing this, and not everyone in this business admits it, but the truth is: there isn't a lot more that anyone can do. You simply cannot tiptoe a three hundred thousand pound piece of high-powered machinery into any place. So when you do bring a big jet airplane in---or take it out---inevitably it shakes hell out of a few people who are nearby." There were several quick smiles, though not from Elliott Freemantle, who was scowling. Mel added, "So if we need airports---and obviously we do---somebody, somewhere has to put up with some noise, or move away."
It was Mel's turn to see the reporters' pencils racing with his words.
"It's true," Mel continued, "that aircraft manufacturers are working on noise reduction devices, but---again to be honest with you---few people in the aviation industry take them seriously, and certainly they do not represent a major effort like, for example, development of a new aircraft. At best, they'll be palliatives. If you don't believe me, let me remind you that even though trucks have been in use for many years more than airplanes, no one has yet invented a really effective truck muffler.
"Another thing to bear in mind is that by the time one type of jet engine gets quieted a little---if it ever does---there'll be new, more powerful engines in use which, even with suppressors fitted, will be noisier than the first engine was to begin with. As I said," Mel added, "I am being absolutely frank."
One of the women in the delegation murmured gloomily, "You sure are."
"Which brings me," Mel said, "to the question of the future. There are new breeds of aircraft coming---another family of jets after the Boeing 747s, including behemoths like the Lockheed 500, which will come into use soon; then shortly afterward, the supersonic transports---the Concorde, and those to follow. The Lockheed 500 and its kind will be subsonic---that is, they'll operate at less than the speed of sound, and will give us the kind of noise we have now, only more of it. The supersonics will have a mighty engine noise too, plus a sonic boom as they breach the sound barrier, which is going to be more of a problem than any other noise we've had so far.
"You may have heard or read---as I have---optimistic reports that the sonic booms will occur high, far from cities and airports, and that the effect on the ground will be minor. Don't believe it! We're in for trouble, all of us---people in homes, like you; people like me, who run airports; airlines, who'll have a billion dollars invested in equipment which they must use continuously, or go bankrupt. Believe me, the time is coming when we'll wish we had the simplicity of the kind of noise we're talking about tonight."
"So what are you telling my clients?" Elliott Freemantle inquired sarcastically. "To go jump in the lunatic asylum now rather than wait until you and your behemoths drive them there?"
"No," Mel said firmly, "I'm not telling them that. I'm merely saying candidly---the way you asked me to---that I haven't any simple answers; nor will I make you promises that the airport cannot keep. Also I'm saving that in my opinion, airport noise is going to become greater, not less. However, I'd like to remind all of you that this problem isn't new. It's existed since trains started running, and since trucks, buses, and automobiles joined them; there was the same problem when freeways were built through residential areas; and when airports were established, and grew. All these things are for the public good---or so we believe---yet all of them create noise and, despite all kinds of efforts, they've continued to. The thing is: trucks, trains, freeways, airplanes, and the rest are here. They're part of the way we live, and unless we change our way of life, then their noise is something we have to live with too."
"In other words, my clients should abandon any idea of serenity, uninterrupted sleep, privacy and quietness for the remainder of their natural lives?"
"No," Mel said. "I think, in the end, they'll have to move. I'm not speaking officially, of course, but I'm convinced that eventually this airport and others will be obliged to make multibillion-dollar purchases of residential areas surrounding them. A good many of the areas can become industrial zones where noise won't matter. And of course, there would be reasonable compensation to those who owned homes and were forced to leave them."
Elliott Freemantle rose and motioned others in the delegation to do the same.
"That last remark," he informed Mel, "is the one sensible thing I've heard this evening. However, the compensation may start sooner than you think, and also be larger." Freemantle nodded curtly. "You will be hearing from us. We shall see you in court."
He went out, the others following.
Through the door to the anteroom Mel heard one of the two women delegates exclaim, "You were magnificent, Mr. Freemantle. I'm going to tell everyone so."
"Well, thank you. Thank you very..." The voices faded.
Mel went to the door, intending to close it.
"I'm sorry about that," he said to Cindy. Now that the two of them were alone again, he was not sure what else they had to say to each other, if anything.
Cindy said icily, "It's par for the course. You should have married an airport."
At the doorway, Mel noticed that one of the men reporters had returned to the anteroom. It was Tomlinson of the Tribune.
"Mr. Bakersfeld, could I see you for a moment?"
Mel said wearily, "What is it?"
"I got the impression you weren't too smitten with Mr. Freemantle."
"Is this for quotation?"
"Then your impression was right."
"I thought you'd be interested in this," the reporter said.
"This was one of the legal retainer forms which Elliott Freemantle had distributed at the Meadowood community meeting."
As Mel read the form, he asked, "Where did you get it?"
The reporter explained.
"How many people were at the meeting?"
"I counted. Roughly six hundred."
"And how many of these forms were signed?"
"I can't be sure of that, Mr. Bakersfeld. My guess would be a hundred and fifty were signed and turned in. Then there were other people who said they'd send theirs by mail."
Mel thought grimly: now be could understand Elliott Freemantle's histrionics; also why and whom the lawyer was trying to impress.
"I guess you're doing the same arithmetic I did," the reporter, Tomlinson, said.
Mel nodded. "It adds up to a tidy little sum."
"Sure does. I wouldn't mind a piece of it myself."
"Maybe we're both in the wrong business. Did you cover the Meadowood meeting too?"
"Didn't anyone over there point out that the total legal fee was likely to be at least fifteen thousand dollars?"
Tomlinson shook his head. "Either no one thought of it, or they didn't care. Besides, Freemantle has quite a personality; hypnotic, I guess you'd call it. He had 'em spellbound, like he was Billy Graham."
Mel handed back the printed retainer form. "Will you put this in your story?"
"I'll put it in, but don't be surprised if the city desk kills it. They're always wary about professional legal stuff. Besides, I guess if you come right down to it, there's nothing really wrong."
"No," Mel said, "it may be unethical, and I imagine the bar association wouldn't like it. But it isn't illegal. What the Meadowood folk should have done, of course, was get together and retain a lawyer as a group. But if people are gullible, and want to make lawyers rich, I guess it's their own affair."
Tomlinson grinned. "May I quote some of that?"
"You just got through telling me your paper wouldn't print it. Besides, this is off the record. Remember?"
If it would have done any good, Mel thought, he would have sounded off, and taken a chance on being quoted or not. But he knew it wouldn't do any good. He also knew that all over the country, ambulance chasing lawyers like Elliott Freemantle were busily signing up groups of people, then harassing airports, airlines, and -in some cases-pilots.
It was not the harassing which Mel objected to; that, and legal recourse, were everyone's privilege. It was simply that in many instances the homeowner clients were being misled, buoyed up with false hopes, and quoted an impressive-sounding, but one-sided selection of legal precedents such as Elliott Freemantle had used tonight. As a result, a spate of legal actions---costly and time-consuming---was being launched, most of which were foredoomed to fail, and from which only the lawyers involved would emerge as beneficiaries.
Mel wished that he had known earlier what Tomlinson had just told him. In that case he would have loaded his remarks to the delegation, so as to convey a warning about Elliott Freemantle, and what the Meadowood residents were getting into. Now it was too late.
"Mr. Bakersfeld," the Tribune reporter said, "there are some other things I'd like to ask you---about the airport generally. If you could spare a few minutes..."
"Any other time I'll be glad to." Mel raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "Right now there are fifteen things happening at once."
The reporter nodded. "I understand. Anyway, I'll be around for a while. I hear Freemantle's bunch are cooking up something down below. So if there's a chance later..."
"I'll do my best," Mel said, though he had no intention of being available any more tonight. He respected Tomlinson's wish to dig below the surface of any story which he covered; just the same, Mel had seen enough of delegations and reporters for one evening.
As to whatever else it was that Freemantle and the Meadowood people were "cooking up down below," he would leave any worrying about that, Mel decided, to Lieutenant Ordway and his policemen.